After years of dreaming and hard work, Haylee Furlong's career as a pilot is about to take off as she prepares to begin work for Air Wisconsin.
“I wanted to fly when I was in diapers,” said Furlong, a Dale City resident. She said learning to fly takes dedication, patience, planning and sacrifice.“For me, my biggest challenge was waiting.”
Furlong grew up in Fairfax Station. Her dad served as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. “He didn’t talk about Vietnam, but he did talk about flying,” Furlong said. “The concept of flying intrigued me.”
When she was 18, she began taking flight lessons at Dulles Aviation, Inc., at Manassas Regional Airport. But she majored in foreign languages with a concentration in Spanish at George Mason, after a school counselor told her she should have a Plan B if flying didn’t work out for her.
“She told me, ‘Don’t major in aviation,’” Furlong said. “‘Have something to fall back on.’”
Furlong paid her own way through college, working for four years as a part-time private investigator with a private detective agency. She also worked a financial job, managing payroll.
After getting her private pilot’s license and her instrument rating, she spent 250 hours of flight time to get her commercial pilot’s certificate. She then trained to become a flight instructor for fixed-wing aircraft.
“While someone may know how to fly, they don’t necessarily know how to teach what they’re doing,” she said. “For example, flying ‘straight and level’ means holding a heading and not changing altitudes, so that seems pretty easy to convey to someone. But you have to know how to explain it in a number of ways to a student, because they are going to be so nervous they won’t hear you the first time.”
She said becoming a flight instructor gave her the time to train for Air Wisconsin. In 2007, she taught her first lesson. She taught the Marine Corps second lieutenants at Manassas Aviation Center, focusing on teaching them to fly solo in up to nine hours of plane time, with the other hours of training being focused on "armchair flying," in which students rehearsed and memorized the steps of each maneuver before they ever stepped into a plane.
She continued as an instructor until the summer of 2010, when Air Wisconsin offered her a job. While with Air Wisconsin, she will fly four or five days a week. In a typical day, she might fly as many as eight trip legs.
During her training with Air Wisconsin, she occasionally looked around at her classmates, some of whom were as young as 24, but were $200,000 in debt. At 29, she wonders whether it would be better to be young with debt, or to be older with no debt.
“I could have gone into it head first and risked having done it too young, and given up, or too soon, and run out of money,” Furlong said. “But I waited until I was 26 years old and had a lot of cash saved and then quit my job and did it all at once—no regrets! I was used to making six figures, and it’s a lot of personal sacrifice to start out as a pilot making practically nothing, but investing $100,000 in your education in a matter of one year.”
She majored in foreign languages, while others majored in aerodynamics, and still others had no degrees at all. “But we all still fly the planes,” Furlong said.
Furlong said she feels lucky to belong to the aviation community.
“They will open up their home, their hangar, their hearts to you—whatever you need,” she said. “They will toss you the keys to their car for the weekend while you wait for a mechanic to come in on Monday. They will take you to dinner and let you and your crew stay the night in their guest house. They will fly in from another state to say hello for five minutes. It’s an incredible community.”
One of the final steps in becoming a pilot for Air Wisconsin is two weeks of simulated flight training. “If I pass, I will be cleared to fly for the airline,” she said.
Furlong hopes for a long and stable career with Air Wisconsin.
“In aviation, the only thing constant is change,” she said. “I just go with the flow and somehow it’s been good to me. I try not to make plans in stone.”